The Difference Between Auto Manufacturers and United Ways


What if automobile manufacturers sold cars and trucks the way United Ways ask people to give?

Imagine if Ford said: “Our goal at Ford is to sell three million cars and trucks this year. So, please buy a Ford and help us meet our goal.” Does this move you to purchase a Ford? Of course not! This is no different than United Ways saying, “Our goal at United Way is to raise $3 million dollars this year.” Our research with United Way donors has found that United Way’s campaign goals do not motivate donors to give, nor do they increase, in the slightest, the amount donors contribute.

Imagine if Toyota said: “Please buy a Toyota because we have six manufacturing plants in the United States.” I am not sure any of you are running out to buy a Toyota because of their number of manufacturing plants. This is no different than United Ways saying, “Give to United Way because we have three investment panels or four allocation committees.” Talking about the number of investment panels or allocation committees is like talking about how cars are manufactured – no one really cares and no one is inspired to invest when they learn about your production process.

Imagine if General Motors said: “Please buy a General Motors car or truck because we use over 70 suppliers to manufacture our cars and trucks.” Using suppliers may be necessary for manufacturing cars and trucks, but it certainly does not supply me with the motivation to buy a General Motors car or truck. This is no different than United Ways saying, “We fund 36 partner agencies and 42 programs.” Knowing how many partner agencies or programs are funded by a United Way does not motivate donors to give. There may be some donors who might be motivated by knowing which partner agencies and what programs a United Way funds. But, I am willing to bet that if we told a United Way donor that last year we funded 36 partner agencies, and this year we funded 39 partner agencies (or even 32 partner agencies), that it would not change the amount of their contribution one bit.

Imagine if BMW said: “Buy a BMW because it takes 40 hours to manufacture each BMW.” Are you driven to buy your BMW knowing this? This is no different than United Ways saying, “Over one hundred volunteers met eight times over the past three months to determine what partner agencies and programs will be funded this year.” I have had United Ways tell me that donors want to know that United Ways hold their partner agencies and funded programs accountable, and sharing the number of people and time spent on the allocation process is one way to demonstrate this to donors. But, the number of people and time spent does not demonstrate accountability. Accountability for donors is simple – show donors what United Way accomplished with their contribution.

Imagine if Honda said: “Our cars and trucks have four wheels, seats, a steering wheel, and headlights.” I am sure you almost feel offended that Honda would feel the need to tell you this. This is no different than United Ways saying, “We help people, advance the common good, and bring people and communities together.” United Way are not unique here – every nonprofit does these things. The difference is that other nonprofits talk about the issue they address, how they make a difference in the community, and the results of their efforts. Our research with United Way donors is clear on this point – donors want and need to know: the issue you are addressing, how you are addressing the issue, and the results you have achieved.

Going back to the opening question, I suspect that if automobile manufacturers sold cars and trucks the way United Ways ask people to give, sales of cars and trucks would be on the decline. Thankfully for us in Michigan, a state highly dependent on the success of the auto industry, automobile manufacturers do not ask people to buy their cars and trucks the way United Ways ask people to give.

The way most United Ways communicate does not motivate people to donate to United Way. These examples of automobile manufacturers asking people to buy their cars and trucks in same way United Ways ask people to give illustrates this challenge. Over the next week or two, think about what your United Way is saying to donors. This is a challenge that must be solved.

P.S. In my next blog post, I’ll share with you the solution to this challenge.

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Quote of the Month: March 2018

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Our March Quote of the Month comes from educator and journalist Helen Keller:

“Worse than being blind would be to be able to see but not have any vision.” – Helen Keller

Every United Way can clearly see what they want to do, but not every United Way has vision. A fundraising-focused United Way raises money for their partner agencies or to fund programs, and their vision is achieving their campaign goal. In recent years, as workplace campaigns have become more challenging, some fundraising-focused United Ways have stopped publicizing their campaign goals, making their vision invisible. Issue-focused United Ways address a single issue in their community, such as high school graduation or homelessness. The vision at issue-focused United Ways is achieving their bold goal – halting hunger, reducing poverty, or all children entering kindergarten ready to learn as examples. A bold goal is a crystal-clear vision that anyone in the community can understand and appreciate. Whether your United Way is fundraising-focused or issue-focused, seeing what you do is not enough – you must have vision to engage your community and donors. If you have a quote you would like to share for our Quote of the Month, please let me know at

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Who Cares?


Your donors do NOT care about . . .

  •  The number of partner agencies that receive funding from your United Way
  •  The number of programs funded by your United Way
  •  The number of hours spent by volunteers to determine your allocations
  •  Your number of Facebook likes or Twitter followers
  •  The number of priority areas of investment or targeted goals at your United Way
  •  How many of your workplace campaigns had 100% participation
  •  Your total number of donors and the average amount contributed by your donors
  •  How much donors designated to other nonprofit organizations
  •  How many people used your volunteer connection website
  •  The number of people in your leadership giving society and how much they contributed
  •  How much money was invested in each of your priority areas of investment
  •  How much money was raised at your social fundraising event
  •  The amounts contributed by your top 20 workplace campaigns
  •  How many people are on your board of directors
  •  Your campaign goal

. . . because none of these things tell a donor why they should give to your United Way.

Your donors care about . . .

1)  What issue does your United Way address?

2)  What is your United Way doing to impact your issue?

3)  What results has your United Way achieved to impact your issue?

. . . because when your donors know these three things, they will know why they should contribute to your United Way. Learn more about the power of one issue and one bold goal to attract donors by becoming issue-focused on our website here.

Successful United Ways tell donors what they want and need to know.

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2018 Great Rivers Conference

We invite you to join us at the upcoming 2018 Great Rivers Conference, a regional United Way conference being held from March 5th-8th in Indianapolis, Indiana. Gary and I will be presenting two sessions at this conference:


CEO Workshop: Leading Your United Way to a Successful Future   

On March 6th, we will be presenting a special session exclusively for United Way CEOs, Executive Directors, and Presidents. This session will show you how to lead your United Way to a successful future by transforming to an issue focus.

As the issue-focused experts, we will show you the power of an issue focus to simplify your United Way's message, diversify your resources, and maximize your impact. We will take an in-depth look at a variety of progressive issue-focused United Ways of all sizes, as we share stories of their successes and challenges. You will learn about the four essential steps for becoming a successful issue-focused United Way and the importance of including all of your stakeholders in the process. This session will provide you with a deeper understanding of what it means to be issue-focused and the knowledge you need to lead your United Way to a successful future.

Strengthen Your Financial Position by Effectively Diversifying Your Resources               

On March 7th, we will be presenting a session about diversifying your resources. We know workplace campaigns have been the bedrock of United Way fundraising for decades, but future financial stability will depend on effectively diversifying resources beyond workplace campaigns.

In this session, we will explore several proven methods for diversifying resources that will allow your United Way to strengthen your financial position in the future. We will begin by discussing a variety of possibilities for diversifying resources and evaluating the requirements and potential for each possibility. You will learn how to implement these possibilities to diversify your resources, illustrated by examples from progressive United Ways. Strengthen your United Way's financial position by learning how to effectively diversify your resources at this session.

For more information and to register for the 2018 Great Rivers Conference, visit We hope to see you at one or both of our sessions in March!

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Quote of the Month: January 2018

Our January Quote of the Month comes from Julie Capaldi, President of United Way of Pickens County in Easley, South Carolina:

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“It used to be money drives the work, now work drives the money” – Julie Capaldi, President, United Way of Pickens County

This quote from Julie encapsulates the most profound change in United Ways over the past couple of decades. We refer to United Ways where the money drives the work as fundraising-focused United Ways, and several decades ago all United Ways were fundraising-focused. At fundraising-focused United Ways, the money comes from the workplace campaigns, which United Ways use to drive the work by investing that money into programs provided by partner agencies. The change Julie is talking about seems simple – just switch the order so the work drives the money. But this switch is anything but simple as issue-focused United Ways must start by clearly identifying their work – addressing a single issue, such as reducing poverty, increasing the graduation rate, or ending homelessness. Only after identifying their work, can an issue-focused United Way go out and successfully ask for the money to support the work. This quote should be a reminder to all United Ways that changing times require United Ways to change with the times. If you have a quote you would like to share for our Quote of the Month, please let me know at

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